REPRESENTATIVES from civil society, government, and the technology sector took time off this week for an ‘unconference’ on how technology can be used to foster transparency, engagement, and open governance.
Shita Laksmi, project manager of the Southeast Asia Technology and Transparency Initiative (SEATTI), said the three day affair is meant to spark cooperation and collaboration among CSOs and government agencies on how to push the idea of open governance through technology. SEATTI is a partnership of the Omidyar Network and Hivos to support the use of technology and media by CSOs to empower citizens and push transparency initiatives. The activity is hosted by both SEATTI and the Making All Voices Count Initiative.
Dubbed Technology and Open Government: A Collaborative Learning Event, the activity took the form of an ‘unconference,’ where participants from more than a dozen government and nongovernment agencies engage in a non-formal discussion of topics based on an agenda that they had set themselves at the start of the unconference. The groups represented include government agencies such as the Departments of Budget and Management and Social Welfare and Development, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration; media groups such as the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) and Blogwatch, and CSOs such as Social Watch, Transparency and Accountability Network, Bantay.Ph, Tao Po, Centre for Migrant Advocacy, the Ateneo School of Government, the Internet Society Philipines, and Assistasia.org.
Paul Maassen, civil society coordinator of the Open Government Partnership, said that while some countries have done excellent work in making information more accessible to the public, much still needs to be done to maximize the use of both advocacy and technology in breaking down the walls around useful information.
In the case of the Philippines, Maassen and Laksmi acknowledged that government has been taking steps towards transparency, such as through the launch last week of the government’s data portal data.gov.ph. However, Maassen stressed that while technology can help accelerate transparency, it cannot guarantee it.
“Technology comes in for acceleration (of transparency,)” Maassen told participants on the first day of the unconference. “Technology can be an important factor; but if it is just technology, it is not open government. If you do it around transparency and accountability, then you can accelerate the transparency you want to see.”
To maximize the unusual ‘unconference’ format, the participants were asked on the first day what issues or topics they would want to discuss for the next three days. They were also asked what skills they wished to learn or share with fellow participants. In this way, the participants were the ones who were allowed to set the agenda for the activity.
The proposed topics were then organized into discussion pegs for the unconference. These proposed pegs included:
- The Freedom of Information bill;
- Using technology to push open governance both ONLINE and OFFLINE;
- Crowd-sourcing and visualization of data;
- How to improve and maximize government’s Open Government initiatives;
- and getting government agencies to engage citizens, and vice versa.
From the start, there was agreement that government’s open data initiatives can in no way replace the long-delayed FOI bill that is still stuck in Congress. Participants who are also FOI proponents point out that while government has taken big steps in making more data available, the public should not be treated as passive recipients of information that government chooses to release.
The demand side of the equation, they argued, would be the ability of citizens to ask government for data that they find useful. This requires a law that would compel agencies to make this data available on demand. Besides, recent government transparency initiatives would be entirely dependent on the ‘benevolence’ of whichever administration is in office, one participant noted.
On breaking down the walls between CSOs and government agencies in terms of open governance, participants from both sides raised a wide variety of proposals, from government engaging even those perceived to be critical, to the need for CSOs to “claim their space.”
These proposals include:
- Improving access to information;
- cutting down on the number of procedures to access information;
- for CSOs to do better constituency building from the ground;
- for government to overcome institutional inertia;
- for CSOs to appreciate the space that is “already available.”
One CSO participant noted the need for CSOs to “claim your space.” Otherwise, the participant noted, someone else would claim that space.
As well, CSOs said there was a perception that government prefers to deal only with groups it perceives to be agreeable, effectively shutting out everyone who is perceived to be even slightly critical. This would also result in government operating in an echo chamber, where the only feedback it would get and accept would be feedback from those who support it in the first place. This remark spurred participants to include a session on how to define the term “constructive engagement” in the discussions.